Back in the nineties, one of my sisters completed her Master's Degree in English Literature, boxed up all her books, stuck them in a closet in my parents' house and moved to France. While she was away I took the boxes out and carried them to my apartment. I read all of her books except those of a particular author.
It's not that I didn't try to like William Faulkner, I simply couldn't make head nor tails of what he was saying. He was so weird, obscure, and gruesome.
My sister hated Faulkner so I didn't receive any encouragement from the English Lit expert.
I don't know what motivated me to start reading him lately. Could have been the book covers. The Vintage paperback editions are particularly appealing. Maybe it always ningled me that I tried to read a literary great and failed.
Anyway, I checked As I Lay Dying out of the library and found myself slowly sucked into the story the way a rodent is hypnotized by a snake. I couldn't stop and, in a dark way, enjoyed the story.
As I Lay Dying is a grim, surreal story about a backwoods family in the deep South. They are trying to bury their wife and mother in Jefferson, a town far enough away to make it a real journey. Floods, overflowing rivers, dead mules, a decaying corpse... nothing deters this family from fulfilling the mother's dying wish. There's a zinger at the end but I won't tell you what.
Each chapter is narrated by a different character in the story. It also jumps back and forth in time so that the reader sees a particular scene through various viewpoints. This is helpful in understanding what is going on. What is only peripherally understood by one narrator is made clear through the eyes of another.
Of course, it's all perceptual. Some of the narrators are young and don't understand what's going on themselves. Others possess disturbed minds and see things through a filtered lens.
One chapter is told by the dead woman (back when she's alive-time is not concrete in this novel). Apparently she hates (hated) all of her family members. The reader isn't sorry she's dead and wonders why any of her relatives would be.
Faulkner captures the spirit of a bygone South that I'm not sure exists anymore. If it ever existed. The characters, for all their diversity, were products of Faulkner's mind. How reliable an observer was he?
My sister would call him an unreliable one. What she learned about Faulkner was that he was bitter toward certain families in his Mississippi hometown who thought they were too good for him. According to her, his novels were his revenge against them.
It's not the plots so much that interest me in Faulkner's stories. It's the way he tells the story. It's like a puzzle. Who is talking and what is it they're saying? Faulkner refuses to help the reader out. Here's how The Sound and The Fury starts out:
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, an I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
Any idea what's going on? I didn't. My smarty husband immediately guessed that the narrator was watching a golf game but that was not obvious to me.
Furthermore, the narrator, Ben Compson, is either mentally handicapped or autistic. The first quarter of the book is narrated by him. He is not an omniscient narrator. He only says what he knows as far as he is capable of understanding what is happening.
But he does accurately quote the other people around him. This includes siblings, his mother, and the black servants that care for him. Through Ben's concrete observations of what is happening to himself and what he see and hears, the reader is able to figure out character names and their relationships with each other.
Of course, Faulkner doesn't make it easy for you. Halfway through Ben's narration we find out that Ben's name was originally Maury. His mother changed it for complicated reasons. So when he's talking about Maury in the past he is actually talking about himself. Except when he's talking about his uncle whom he was named after. Insert a smile and a wink here.
Then there's Quentin. First, Quentin's a he, then Quentin's a she, then back to he, etc... I'm thinking what in the blazes is going on here?!? Finally in the last half of the book we discover there's two Quentins. Quentin Compson is the brother of Caddie who ran off, got married, and named her daughter after him. Since everything is from inside different people's minds, they simply think about what's going on, and what they think about what's going on, without offering the reader any information they don't have to explain to themselves.
There's only four chapters to the book. At 321 pages, that makes for long chapters. The first and last two chapters take place only a couple of days from each other. Naturally they're not in chronological order. That last two chapters are separated by one day. That day belongs to the first chapter. The second chapter is narrated by the brother Quentin eighteen years earlier.
The storyline? Not complicated. An old Southern family, the Compsons, is in its final decay. There is quite a list of characters but they mostly exist in the narrators' minds because they're either dead or have run away.
All that's left is one brother, Jason, Quentin-Caddie's daughter, Ben and the mother. The mother stays in bed most of the time demanding to be waited on hand and foot by Dilsey, the old family servant, and Dilsey's son, Luster, who also is in charge of Ben.
Jason has a small business but he's about the nastiest and meanest of the whole bunch. One thinks that Caddie and her brother Quentin escaped to get away from him. Caddie gets divorced and sends her baby back home. She sends money for her keep. Quentin never sees the money because Jason keeps it squirreled away for himself.
The last two chapters are mainly narrated by Jason and a angry little mind he has. His whole life seems to be bent on domineering his niece and cheating her out of her money. She knows this and finally breaks into his safe, steals the money, and runs off with a carnival hand. Jason demands police intervention but it seems there are no secrets in this small Mississippi town. The police chief insinuates that the person who may need to be arrested is Jason himself.
Even though Jason is a nasty, spiteful person, his mental narration is the most interesting. In all the venom, one hears the cry of despair over forsaken dreams, ambitions and frustrated plans. He's the most real of all the characters and the most poignant.
Well, not the most poignant. That would be the servants. Serving selfish people, having to care for a thirty year old man with the mind of a toddler, they show the most dignity and strength. Faulkner in his end notes says,
And that was all. These others were not Compsons. They were black:
Luster. A man, aged 14. Who was not only capable of the complete care and security of an idiot twice his age and three times his size, but could keep him entertained.
Dilsey (the housekeeper).
Should you read Faulkner. For all the chaos, obscurity and grimness, I can honestly say I have found him to be a rich and rewarding read. A guilty pleasure in fact. I've only lately confided to my sister that I like reading him.
She doesn't approve.